” ‘Black Dutch’ – A Polite Euphemism” by Darlene Wilson, 1997 article

Black Dutch” – A Polite Euphemism?

by Darlene Wilson

Note: This article, slightly revised here, appeared in the winter 1997-98 issue of the Appalachian Quarterly, published by the Wise County Historical Society.

My mother’s family (surname ‘Albert,’ mostly in and around Pulaski Co., VA) always said that they were of ‘Black Dutch’ ancestry but no one then or now living could explain, to my satisfaction, what that meant. Many of her aunts, uncles, and siblings looked more Native American than any other ethnicity; by the end of summer, one great-aunt of mine who loved to garden looked a lot like surviving pictures of that much-noted Melungeon matriarch, Mahala Collins Mullins who, as a young woman, appeared to be a medium-dark mulatto.

As is typical of many Appalachian families, my mother’s people only bothered to trace the one male line that could be linked:

1) to a ‘name’ on a ship’s manifest– in this scenario, an original ‘Albert’ left Germany c. 1700– and,

2) to a Revolutionary War pension record– here, one of Albert’s grandsons apparently made his way down the Valley of Virginia after the War looking for land.
About HER mother’s ancestry or about her paternal grandmother’s ancestry, my mom knew very little. Other family members also were reluctant to speculate about any other family-surname than that one Albert who was, they insisted, “Black Dutch.” One suggested that there had been an insulated people connected to the famed “Black Forest” and perhaps therein lay the term’s origin.

Since beginning my research, I’ve found that my family’s origin-story was not unique– ‘Black Dutch’ was used in southwest Virginia, southern W.VA, east Tennessee, and east Kentucky, in a context that OFTEN (but NOT always) served to explain away the dark-featured, swarthy, (good) looks of family members who would be right at home (in the sense of physical appearance) among ‘Indians’ (native Americans), Middle Eastern or Arabic countries, or those in African communities, especially in the north part of that continent along the Mediterranean Sea.

Historically the combination of the word ‘Black’ and one of European/ethnic self-signification is quite common. Last year, university-based scholars on the electronic list known as H-Albion (for British historians) got into a discussion about the origins of the term ‘Black Dutch’, which was exciting because there were so many different, conflicting opinions expressed and, as I recall, the LIST did not reach any consensus. We were reminded of the Black Irish and of several ‘color-ful’ communities in northern Europe, especially Scandinavia– in fact, according to the contributors, anywhere that Spanish or Mediterranean ships could get to, sailors are believed to have left their genetic ‘mark’, so to speak. The debate turned to one over which came first (chronologically): did Spanish sailors visit Finland and Holland to ‘seed’ it or did the Vikings bring back a few specimen (and/or speci-women) from other-colored harbors?

For my family, a different scenario seems plausible– I think that first Albert to arrive in western Virginia linked up with a native-appearing woman, probably Cherokee or Monacan in culture and upbringing, who offered him some ‘protection’ in that she knew the terrain and had stalwart ‘brothers’ in other clans/families who could help him carve out a ‘place’ in the mountains within which they too would be safe. At that time, Thomas Jefferson and many other Anglo-American leaders recommended ‘amalgamation’ and marriage between natives and the former colonists– Patrick Henry even broached a plan to his colleagues in Virginia’s General Assembly to give fifty acres and a cow to any “white” who married an Indian.

At the very same time, an educational campaign was launched and conducted (by religious leaders and government agents) to teach native men and women how to ‘adopt’ white lifestyles– these lessons included keeping women out of the corn-fields and adopting Southern patterns of chattel slavery. By all accounts, descendants of the Cherokees had to be ‘taught’ to hate (and enslave) African-Americans and to turn their backs on those they had previously welcomed as simply other human beings. Only a handful of Cherokees actually prospered as slave owners, however, and most rejected the practice of slavery as inhumane and contrary to their spiritual views.

In the aftermath of the so-called “Nat Turner revolt,” attitudes hardened toward mixed-ancestry people throughout the 1830s and the southern states passed harsh measures to control their lives or to banish them from white(r) communities. By 1840, anybody who resembled Albert’s wife or mother-in-law could be ’rounded-up’ and herded out West with all the other descendants of post-contact-Natives. If you had certain features or skin-tones (even the palest of ‘yellow’ if the record-keepers didn’t like you or your daddy or mama), you and your children could be ’rounded-up’ and sold into slavery. The term ‘Black Dutch’– especially if it had indeed become familiar to other Europeans as the H-ALBION list-members argued so forcefully– was thus at-hand when, suddenly, people felt compelled to deny their more-colorful, mixed-ancestry. And there were literally thousands and thousands of Southern residents who shared this problem. So, I’d argue that Black Dutch was a “polite” euphemism for being “of mixed-ancestry” only if it were accepted by local- and military-authorities– if not, going deeper into the upcountry South could be a family’s only recourse. The mountainous region that would be named “Wise County” became one such safe destination, a sanctuary for those who needed more time to get “white-enough” according to these new racial categories.

(For further reading on the historical use of red, white, and black terminology, I recommend the recent essay by Nancy Shoemaker, “How the Indians Got to Be Red” in The American Historical Review, June 1997, Vol. 102, Number 3, pp. 625-644. Ms. Shoemaker’s footnotes point to literally dozens of significant readings and offer a handy guide to the vast literature on race and race-language in America.)

Darlene Wilson
28 January 1998